Injuries, deaths on Georgia sets renew focus on filming industry safety

Sarah Jones was 27 when she died on the set of “Midnight Rider.” The director went to jail and a jury just awarded $11.2 million. Family photo

Two days after a stuntman working on “The Walking Dead” was seriously injured and declared brain-dead this month, a personal injury lawsuit accusing 20th Century Fox and others involved with the production of “Sleepy Hollow” of failing to take reasonable safety precautions was filed in DeKalb County.

Three days after that, a jury awarded $11.2 million in a wrongful death lawsuit filed a deadly train wreck on the set of “Midnight Rider.”

This all happened weeks after a stuntman’s injury temporarily halted production of “Rampage,” an action movie starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and “Avengers” star Jeremy Renner’s Instagram post revealing he’d injured his wrist and elbow on the set of ensemble comedy “Tag.”

Whether the spate of coincidentally timed incidents is just happenstance or indicates any kind of trend is hard to say.

Stuntman John Bernecker died after falling on the set of “The Walking Dead” and missing a safety cushion. Photo: imdb.com

A search of Occupational Safety and Health Administration records from 1972, the first year records are electronically available, to the present shows only five film-industry enforcement reports in Georgia, including the one just launched into the “Walking Dead” fatality. All were from 2010 to 2014.

Only the reports triggered by the deaths of John Bernecker and Sarah Jones on “The Walking Dead” and “Midnight Rider” sets concern injuries. Two others list fines triggered by insufficient safety gear or practices, and one generated no fine.

A look at other states that have become filming destination also found few OSHA enforcement reports. Two have been generated in Louisiana, including one from a 2011 fatality. A worker dismantling the set of “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” was operating a piece of heavy equipment called a scissor when the lift fell off a ramp, documents show. Michael Huber died from head injuries. Three reports turn up from North Carolina, none involving injuries. (In California, on the other hand, there were 13 reports, nine of which were accidents, in just the past year.)

Georgia’s recent high-profile film-set incidents have renewed an focus on safety industry-wide.

“The losses that we’ve recently experienced, it’s all too fresh right now for this not to be looked at,” said Angela Plasschaert, a prominent Los Angeles entertainment risk management expert who worked for years as a television and film producer. “There’s not enough consideration given to safety as an actual department.”

She never leaves a filming set without having made some recommendation regarding safety practices, she said.

“Everyone’s worried about getting their day, getting that shot,” she said. “There’s a certain amount of ‘bigger and better.’ We’ve been dealing with that since ‘Jaws’ came out.”

She worries that people new to the industry may be wary of voicing safety concerns, fearful of hindering their careers. According to a Coweta County Sheriff’s Office report said, assistant director Matthew Goodwin told authorities Bernecker had given a thumbs-up sign prior to the jump; actor Austin Amelio told officers that Bernecker “seemed a little nervous.”

“Where was that missing link where he didn’t feel confident going to the stunt coordinator” to relay concerns, Plasschaert wondered. “There may have been an opportunity for someone to say to that young man, are you alright? I’ve had directors demand change, demand stunts look another way. A lot of times they’ll wait until the stunt coordinator leaves the set. 

“What’s missing and different from all the other departments are licenses and credentials showing that their area of expertise has been certified, meaning somebody has said you’re ready for high falls, ready for work with motorcycles, cars, fight sequences, fencing,” she continued. “Most of our union positions require hours submitted to help them join the union proving their experience has been gathered at a lower level where it is safe and supervised, and then given the opportunity to work in that department after having passed safety training. They then walk away with certification showing that they are ready.”

She stressed she isn’t pointing fingers at anyone, but urged a pause when appropriate to ensure safety.

“Five minutes of everyone stopping and thinking versus going to a funeral,” she said.

Bernecker was flown by medical helicopter to Atlanta Medical Center, where he was pronounced brain-dead on July 12; his family released a statement July 14 saying his organs had been donated. AMC released a statement of condolence but the show’s publicist didn’t respond to a request for further comment.

Film industry tax credits enacted in 2008 have lured a growing stream of big and small screen projects, leading Georgia to nab honors as the world’s top destination for major-motion picture filming in 2016. During fiscal-year 2016, 245 feature films, television movies and series, commercials, and music videos were filmed here. The fiscal-year 2017 number exceeds 300.

Gov. Nathan Deal, an ardent supporter of the tax credits, announced this month that a record $2.7 billion was spent in Georgia by film and television production companies in fiscal-year 2017, up from $2 billion the year before; that’s more than 38 times what was spent here in 2007, according to state figures.

Gov. Nathan Deal talked up the industry at a Film Day event during the 2017 legislative session. Photo: Jennifer Brett

Having covered the film industry for years, particularly since 2008, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has had the opportunity to visit numerous filming locations. When the topic of safety comes up, it’s almost always a positive conversation.

Missy Bain’s twins played babies in the 2011 Jason Bateman-Ryan Reynolds buddy comedy “The Change-Up,” and she was thoroughly impressed with the production’s commitment to safety. Although Bateman’s character ineptly juggled the twins on camera, a special hidden harness kept them securely strapped in during the comic bits.

“They were so great about safety,” she said. “There were scenes in the bathtub and in the sink. They had us come test the water temperature. They thought of everything.”

“Parental Guidance,” a 2012 family comedy with Billy Crystal, Bette Midler, Marisa Tomei and Tom Everett Scott, filmed a scene in Piedmont Park featuring skateboarding pro Tony Hawk. Crews constructed a professional half-pipe for a scene involving young actors, and on-set safety monitors watched the kids like proverbial hawks.

We watched Tom Holland film a scene for recently released “Spider-Man: Homecoming” that involved him running down a downtown Atlanta alley while jostling out of his street clothes.

MORE: Behind the scenes on the Atlanta set of “Spider-Man: Homecoming”

Anthony Mackie sprinted across a roof a few blocks away for a scene in last year’s “Captain America: Civil War.” See more photos from the set here.

Anthony Mackie, up on the roof, safe and sound. Photo: Jennifer Brett

Ansel Elgort filmed what on camera looked to be a harrowing getaway after a bank robbery and shootout scene that filmed near Perimeter Mall in “Baby Driver,” also just out.

No issues.

The “Captain America” scene filmed on a blazing hot day. After every “cut!” the extras congregated for crowd scenes were urged to seek respite in the shade off-set, and Chris Evans’ stunt double handed out bottled water, to make sure everyone stayed properly hydrated.

Chris Evans’ stunt double passed out water to extras when “Captain America: Civil War” filmed on a blazing hot day in downtown Atlanta. Photo: Jennifer Brett

We’ve also heard, off the record, as sources are hesitant about damaging their opportunities for future work, about sets where stunt people didn’t have proper safety equipment, incidents where extras were asked to perform physically dangerous moves at no additional pay (or safety procedures) or other unsafe practices.

“One time on ‘The Walking Dead’ I had to be behind this big gate,” said an extra who requested anonymity for fear of professional retribution. “The Governor (played by David Morrissey) was going to come flying through. He’s in a car. They’d go ‘Gate!’ and we had to open the gate as fast as we could. It was sort of like opening a drawbridge. I kept thinking, ‘I’m a little nervous. Am I going to be hit?’ There were times that I felt, I don’t feel comfortable on this thing.”

The extra pushed back while working on a scene for 2012’s “The Three Stooges.”

“They wanted us up on this slanted roof and I said, I’m not comfortable doing this. They said, fine,” he said. 20th Century Fox Studios was fined for several issues pertaining to that production, OSHA records show. Violations involved wiring methods, components, general-use equipment, aerial lifts and head protection. The head protection item was later deleted.

20th Century Fox Studios didn’t respond to a request for comment.

20th Century Fox Television was among the defendants named in the “Sleepy Hollow” lawsuit personal injury lawsuit filed July 14 by Harris Lowry Manton, the firm that represented Sarah Jones’ parents Richard and Elizabeth Jones. Plaintiff Deborah Cottrill was working on a road she thought had been closed on July 27, 2015 when the show was filming in Conyers and was hit by a truck, the lawsuit says.

“Despite the fact that the cast and crew members were moving about, the ‘Sleepy Hollow’ defendants, or their agents, representatives, contractors, or employees, failed to take reasonable, minimum safety precautions,” the suit says Cottrill’s leg and ankle were broken and her shoulder was injured, the suit says. She’s had multiple surgeries and procedures since then. 20th Century Fox Television didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Coincidentally, Cottrill had the same job as the late Jones did: second camera assistant. She remains in recovery and wasn’t available for an interview. Her attorney, Jeff Harris, spoke with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday, the day after Savannah jurors awarded the $11.2 million judgment in the Jones case.

“I’m excited about the fact we’re getting all these movies in Georgia,” he said. “It’s great for the economy.”

Still, he urged a focus on safety amid all the action.

“You have these people working all kinds of hours,” Harris said. “Some of them are young, some of them are new to the industry. A movie set is like a big factory, except in a factory you have the same people doing the same jobs. A movie set is like taking a big factory that has things going on that are dangerous and moving it around and then doing things that might be dangerous, like blowing stuff up.”

Given Georgia’s booming film industry, he added, “I’m surprised there aren’t more accidents.”

Contributing: Martha Michael, Jennifer Peebles, The Associated Press

Reader Comments 0

10 comments
1Fred
1Fred

I still can't figure out how CSX was liable for anything in the Sara Jones case.  There were posted no trespassing signs, the production company had been told twice in writing they could not use the tracks, the production company was acting in a criminal manner by being where they had been denied access.  What does it take?

Mary K. Haller
Mary K. Haller


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Queen of Ctown
Queen of Ctown

I've met quite a few and know some of the "skilled" workers from the industry fairly well.   Just about every one is a stoner who has never been gainfully employed before.    They're fairly desperate for workers and it shows. 

wurixegix
wurixegix

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oydave
oydave

I have not seen any unsafe conditions on set. There are safety meetings all the time and an almost hyper awareness among all the crafts.

SteveStussey
SteveStussey

To blame Ga/locals like everyone tries to do is such an injustice. The people that make the calls are the keys/heads from LA. They feel they can get away with more in places other than LA or NY where they have a legacy of filmmaking and being overseen, so when they go to other states, they feel they can bend the rules, not the locals being inexperienced. 

The part about John not being comfortable, not sure where that came from. On his fb he has posts about higher falls and from people who were on set, said he wasn't nervous. So the media needs to get the whole story instead of the sensationalist drama to point fingers without the truth. 

skup13
skup13

Honestly I didn't take the article as blaming Georgians. We are the busiest filming state in the US and, as the article states, have less accidents. Statistically that means we are safer than other states. I started reading this article expecting the Ga bashing that you see on Deadline, but was pleasantly surprised by a well written, unbiased article.